Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | December 10th, 2020
Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Loosely based on the director’s experiences growing up in the Ozarks in the 1980s, Lee Isaac Chung’s Minarifollows a Korean family that moves from California to Arkansas so patriarch Jacob can realize his dream of living on a farm. Starring Steven Yeun (Burning) as that father, Han Ye-ri (Secret Zoo) as the mother, Monica, and Alan S. Kim as David, the director’s young surrogate, the movie offers a beautiful tale that covers a multiplicity of topics, from immigration to marriage to generational conflict, and more. With great specificity of time and place, Minari slowly builds its narrative from the ground up, much like Jacob with the land, and by the end presents a lush garden for our enjoyment. If not all details or performances work as well as others, the overall result is still moving.
We begin with the arrival of the Yi family in Arkansas, which is less than thrilling for Monica. She feels lied to by Jacob, who promised her more than a bare-bones trailer, without entryway stairs, in which to live. Still, here they are, and they might as well make the best of it. But there is a constant strain between husband and wife, she unhappy away from the communities she loved both out West and back home in South Korea. Before long, unable to manage their affairs and care for David and his older sister, they bring out Monica’s mother, Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who, independent as she is, makes a most unconventional babysitter. Nevertheless, she will have to do, at least until they start making money, which seems unlikely, at least at first.
Helping with the farm is local yokel Paul (Will Patton, Blood on Her Name), a hard worker whose country ways strike Jacob as backwards, though he finds out by the end of the film that there is wisdom in those who have lived somewhere a long time. The main concern is water, something Jacob is determined to find on his own, eschewing the services of another local who offers his dowsing (or divining) technique for a fee. As his capital flows into the land without significant return, Jacob, with Monica ever more concerned, begins to question his decisions.
Meanwhile, David and his sister try to adapt as best they can, making friends at church or in school, neither fully Korean nor yet American. When grandmother Soon-ja arrives, they have some opportunity to learn the traditions of their ancestral homeland, but that may not be all that interesting. Instead, there are outdoor delights to explore, and Soon-ja seems game enough for that, too. It is she who plants the titular Minari, a form of water dropwort, or celery, common in Korean cooking. A vine-like plant, it grows best near water, and the nearby riverbank strikes Soon-ja as the perfect spot. It’s a lovely metaphor for the blending of cultures, and takes firm root.
As does the narrative, though both Patton and Youn have an unfortunate tendency to overact, and their scripted behavior sometimes fits oddly in the surrounding story. Yeun, Han and Kim, however, are all fully engaging, and watching them perform both individually and together is a delight. Like the vegetables Jacob cultivates, their performances grow richer over time, fully immersing us in Minari’s robust cinematic tendrils. Chung serves up a yummy dish.